The Vikings are upon us again, and this time with none to echo a prayer as endlessly plausible as it was ever unverifiable: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us!” For this is a peaceful re-entry, which began as an exhibition in the heart of London, of sudden advent but long preparation, and by design revelatory of our ancient despoilers in all their manifestations at home and abroad, domestic as well as martial, cultural as well as destructive, openers-up of trade-routes, word-hoards, and world-pictures, as well as of purses and jugulars. This laudable design is reinforced by the appearance of two new books on the subject, one of them, The Vikings, by James Graham-Campbell and Dafydd Kidd, intended to serve as the exhibition’s catalogue. The other, James Graham-Campbell’s wideranging survey The Viking World, is no less welcome, for it is high time for a popular or, rather, public reappraisal to follow the established scholarly one. This may involve a loss of folklore along with the historical gain, but the two are not so exclusive of each other as is sometimes supposed.
A word first about the very considerable advances in Norse-Viking studies conducted in the English-language world during the last quarter of a century, most of them commanding a high degree of public interest. Some events like the nine-hundredth anniversary of the epochal victory and defeat at Stamford Bridge and Hastings reinforced a widening interest. Others like the uncovering of Norse Dublin and the excavation of the Anglo-Norse town at York had both a local and national appeal. The raising of five medieval Norse ships which had been sunk to block the channel at Skuldelev (Peberrenden) in Roskilde Fjord, Denmark, and the building and putting to sea of faithful replicas of the Norse longship brought a new awareness of the realities of Viking seamanship and sea power. Of particular interest to Americans was the increasing evidence of a Norse presence in the Western Hemisphere. The excavations at Brattahlid in southwest Greenland of Norse homesteads and “Thjodhild’s Church” confirmed that the right sort of colony was there at the right time to lend substance to saga accounts of Norse voyages to the North American continent c. 1000 AD.
In the Sixties the Vinland Map achieved world fame with what everyone hoped would be the first portrayal on any map of any part of the New World in general, and that part of it we now know as Canada and the United States in particular. In the Seventies the fame changed to notoriety as one more vellum bit the dust, but these setbacks happen, have happened before, and will happen again. Altogether more important was the steady homing-in on northern Newfoundland as the possible, then probable, then certain site of Norse settlement. The decisive archaeological reports appeared in 1977, and the historical survey is expected to appear later this year. There could be no more golden welcome for “The Vikings” exhibition in New York.
Briefly, who were the Vikings, so-called, those potent contributors to history, legend, and myth? This is the question put and answered in the opening chapters of The Vikings, “Introduction and the Scandinavian Background,” and in the first two chapters of The Viking World, “Pagan People and Their Lands” and “Viking Warriors.” They were Scandinavians, the inhabitants of the much-partitioned and fought-over lands which would become Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. But a truer meaning of the word víkingr can be drawn, I think, from the related word víking, which means a freebooting voyage, and by extension the business or profession of seaborne piracy. A Viking was one who went a-viking and was engaged in the forcible acquisition of other people’s property, including those most valuable properties of all, their life and liberty. All Scandinavians were not víkingar, Vikings, and all Vikings were not pirates all the time; but enough of them were and came into sufficiently hurtful contact with their overseas neighbors for “Viking” to become an emotively descriptive term, at home neutral and sometimes admiring, abroad resentful or contumelious, for all unwelcome visitants from “up there.”
Their bad reputation started immediately. Inevitably our documentary knowledge of the Viking Movement (that is, the manifestation of the Viking Age, c. 780-1100, outside Scandinavia) we owe in large measure to those who justifiably regarded their inroads with fear and loathing, and especially the monkish chroniclers of Church and State. It has become the thing to say (I have said it myself) that the Vikings were no worse than the other baleful predators of humankind, but assuredly they were no better, and who expects a reasoned remonstrance from the toad beneath the harrow? From Lindisfarne and Jarrow, Iona and Armagh, from Dorchester and Dorestadt, Paris and Périgueux, Chartres and Melun, the clamant voices of anti-Viking outrage and protest soared to God on high and lapped among men below. For where throughout the ninth and tenth centuries were they not?
Their story is unfolded in chapters 3 and 4 of The Vikings, “Traders and Looters” and “Viking Settlement,” as in Mr. Graham-Campbell’s corresponding “Land-Seekers” and “Merchantmen.” The coasts and river lanes of Western Europe lay open to them; most of what are now the unified kingdoms or nations of England, France, and the Celtic lands were conveniently and fatally divided into warring realms, lordships, and factions. The lands bordering the great Russian rivers Volga and Dnieper and their tributaries were ripe for exploitation by compact, weapon-bearing bands of traders fair and foul, who would set up marts, stockaded towns, and eventually such city-states as Kiev; and the Arab lands and the Eastern Empire were sources of that most loved metal silver, and insatiable marts for furs and slaves (the Vikings were devoted slavers). Eastward they would eventually work the enormous trading grounds and waterways from the Baltic and its gulfs to the Black Sea and the Caspian, with links to the silk empires beyond the mariner’s rose, and access to Constantinople, Miklagarth, the Great City. Westward-over-sea they found the grassy sheep-runs of the Faroes, the butter-laden pasture and millennial hunting-grounds of Iceland, where the foot of man had never trod; and westward still the unculled fisheries and seal nurseries of the southwest Greenland fjords; and still in the eye of the setting sun the timberlands and fur-bearers of Labrador and Newfoundland.
The causes of this Scandinavian outpouring of “tumultuary arms and numbers” would carry us beyond our brief. But land-shortage and overpopulation at home, faction and expulsion accompanying the forging of the Scandinavian kingdoms, were part of it; and the lure of pasture and timber, portable plunder and undefended riches elsewhere another part. The freeman looked for gainful employment, comradeship, self-improvement; great men sought an aggrandizement of rank and territory and the wealth that went with them, honor in this life and fame thereafter.
Toward the realization of the universal human dream of wanting all you can get, and getting it if possible for nothing, the Scandinavian peoples for well over two hundred years had one supreme instrument: the viking ship. In northern and western waters it was unrivaled—or rather they were unrivaled, for the Norsemen had ships for every practical purpose, including warfare, trade, and ocean-going. But it was the longship which most impressed itself on Europe and posterity. Handsome, sturdy, roomy enough, proceeding under sail or oars or both, highly maneuverable with her advanced steering, of shallow draught and comparatively low freeboard, and finally of unrivaled seaworthiness, she was the key to Viking success. The account of Norse ships in The Viking World contributed by Dr. Sean McGrail is first-rate. It discusses their size, shape, and function, the timber and tools that went to their making, their performance, and the skills of those who designed and manned them. It also finds room for a “Visual Glossary,” a device so compulsively desirable and right that one wonders how any author ever managed without it.
Her day would pass, and its passing heralded a sad sea-change for Viking dominance abroad. But in the eleventh century the world was changing anyway. England, France, Normandy were deploying their superior resources; there was too much dissension and warfare back home; the Vikings had no exportable political or social system; their religion sank before Christianity; their language made no true headway against Latin and the Western European vernaculars. Above all they lacked manpower to consolidate their swift gains. The Viking achievement had been formidable, yet less than conclusive. At home the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden had taken recognizable though far from immutable shape; abroad they had consolidated the island-republic of Iceland and ensured the continuing existence of the Duchy of Normandy. Their contribution to geographical knowledge and discovery was impressive, and they had spun a veritable spider’s web of trade-routes and mercantile dealing with peoples near and far. They supplied a useful leaven of new blood and enterprise to many peoples: they were by nature energizers.
But somehow it all came to less than it should have—with the brilliant exceptions of the statecraft and European role of the Normans, and the flowering of poetry, prose-narrative, and historical writing in Iceland. But nothing of Norse power would survive west of Iceland, though the legends were potent; the Icelanders, freed from the oppression “of kings and ruffians abroad,” were soon Icelanders pure and simple; the Danes of the Danelaw became Englishmen; while in Russia the East-faring Vikings, the Rus, were submerged in Slav confederacies and eventually in the vast empire to which they gave their name.
All these matters receive attention and illustration in the splendid exhibition at the British Museum in London and The Metropolitan Museum in New York. But before we discuss the exhibition, let us spare a few paragraphs for that ferocious northern stereotype, the Viking image, which has haunted us for over twelve hundred years since Charlemagne maneuvered Sigfred king of Nordmannia into the misleading light of Frankish history and Paul the Deacon declined a visit to the royal Nordic bumpkin who (Oh horror!) knew no Latin. Most of us were brought up on the assumptions that the Age of the Vikings was a Heroic Age and the Viking a Hero of a more than normally violent kind. Such assumptions can be true without being wholly true.
What we know about any Heroic Age, particularly among the Germans and the Celts (the most relevant to us), comes from its literary (i.e., written or incised) and archaeological remains. These suggest that such an age has a society consisting of three divinely ordained classes: first, a warrior-elite at whose head stands a king, lord, chieftain, of divine descent or at least redolent of some divine aura or savor; second, a class of free men with a right to land and opinions and the obligation to discharge such honorable and satisfying tasks as farming, building ships and houses, and practicing a craft and trade; and third, a class of slaves, who do the world’s dirty work and have no guaranteed rights at all.
In the apportioning of values, and the rights and duties that accompany them, the king and his warrior-elite are supreme. The thrall didn’t count, and wasn’t counted. Churls could deal clouts enow, but for style (always an expensive commodity) those panegyrists, memorialists, and awarders of immortality in the minds of men, the poets who passed judgment on men of valor, liked a lord every time. Valor, loyalty, service and reward, and the purchase of fame by death in a lord’s cause: these were the essentials of a warlike and hierarchical society. We encounter this ideal in its pure form in Saxo’s version of the Bjarkamál, that series of heroic exhortations wherein warriors freed from all other human considerations proclaimed their determination to meet the final requirement of the warrior’s code:
Sweet is it to repay the gifts received from our lord, to grip the swords, and devote the steel to glory…. My master is the greatest of the Danes…. While life lasts let us strive for the strength to die honorably, and reap a noble end by our deeds. We shall be the prey of ravens and a morsel for hungry eagles, and the ravening bird shall feast on the banquet of our body. Thus should fall princes dauntless in war, clasping their famous king in a common death.
This has its own weird integrity. But there is the impure expression of the ideal too, corrupted and corrupting. Consider the “Death-Song of Ragnar Lothbrok (Hairybreeks),” a poem of twenty-nine stanzas, all save the last beginning with the words Hjuggum vér med hjörvi: “We hewed with the sword.” We learn with bloodshot eye whom we have hewed, and where and when we hewed them, and how swords, spears, shields, and helms were splintered, and how the wolf gorged and the raven feasted, and the heavens rained, the rivers ran, the seas surged, and the earth perspired with blood.
It would be wrong of me to say that the “Death-Song” is the worst heroic poem ever written—for a century and a half after 1700 the connoisseurs and cognoscenti of Europe thought it just about the best—but it is without doubt the worst translated. This is the poem which in a prolonged series of misapprehensions gave English readers the erroneous notions that Vikings drank beer from the skulls of their enemies, which is a calumny; that the joys of battle were like those of kissing a young widow in the best seat at table, which is an exaggeration, or like those of embracing a virgin bride in the nuptial bed, which is a lie. It is as though a succession of translators, Scandinavian, French, and English, entranced by the heroic absurdities of their original, conspired to reinforce them with follies of their own. Should we feel surprise that the Viking image has been slow to recover its human face?
Nor is this the whole of it. I have used the words “divinely ordained” of the three classes of mankind. Only one other order of created beings throughout man’s long history has challenged his corroding sense of self-importance: his gods. I say “created” because whatever our views of a divine creation of men, there can be no doubt about the human creation of gods. Which brings me to Norse religion, of which we know too little, and Norse mythology, of which it is possible to feel we know too much. The Vikings treats “Death and Pagan Gods” and “The Coming of Christianity” with an eye to the exhibits on display. The Viking World contains a useful chapter “From Odin to Christ,” contributed by Christine Fell, who looks at the same topics with an eye to the literary sources as well as the artifacts. The related subject of runes is dealt with briefly in The Vikings, and The Viking World offers a pleasing and succinct account by R.I. Page of “Rune Masters and Skalds.” But they leave room for an addendum of my own. Because with the possible exception of the heroic poetry of the North with which it is inseparably connected, nothing has done more to frame our European and American popular image of the Viking. Thus:
All men know that the world must one day end; the pagan Norsemen knew it more than most; and the god Othin, the All-Father, the All-Wise with his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and his ravens Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory, who flew about the world each day and brought him the news thereof, he knew it most of all. And knew too that he would need all the help he could get on that dread day when the wolf Fenrir and the hound Garm and the Midgarth-Snake, with Loki and the Fire-Giants and their allies, would burst their bonds, confound the tortuous system of checks and balances wherewith the divine wisdom and power had held them at bay, and surge forth to destroy gods and men, green fields and all bright dwellings. This wasn’t something that might happen. It would happen. And it was for gods to face it like gods, and men to face it like men: heroically. It would be their ultimate glory to confront destruction, be destroyed by it, but die not a cow’s death, not a straw-death, not hiding in bed or crouching in a corner, but sword in hand, and the heart in your breast not the trembling jelly of a cowardly scullion, but the rock-hard heart of a Hogni in the breast of a Bothvar Bjarki.
To this end, that God-Home and Man-Home may give a good account of themselves, the Maiden Choosers of the Slain, the Valkyries, chose from every battlefield the hardest fighters, the doughtiest champions, and sped them from the place of slaughter to Othin in Valhalla, where they would feast on golden mead and the boiled flesh of the daily killed but ever-renewed boar Saehrimnir, and practice swordplay and shieldplay till the morning when the cock will crow and the horn will blow, and there is a trampling and roaring from the hordes of Hel, and the heroes rise up grim and rejoicing and march off to die with Thor.
This is strong medicine and so affected the minds of generations of Viking-lovers that neither minds nor medicine have been the same ever since. And yet the image needs redressing, for no Heroic Age ever existed in such heroic purity as its artifacts, literary and martial, would have us believe. For a start, the heroic ideal assumed for the North is contradicted by the domestic and non-martial artifacts of graves and homes and towns. Further, it is contradicted by the other than heroic literature, especially what is called “wisdom literature”—and not with the contradiction of a deliberate rebuttal but by an altogether more deadly refusal to recognize the heroic point of view.
Here are some sayings from the most famous piece of wisdom literature known to the pagan North, the Hávamál, or Speech of the High One, spoken by or before Othin in his high hall. A poem of 164 verses, which offer scope for a lot of wisdom, it was composed in Norway, but preserved in Old Icelandic from the age of heathendom. But if for that reason we expect it to extol the heroic way of life or echo the sentiments of contemporary heroic poets we shall be disappointed, for the High One in his wisdom clearly approves of sensible men seeking an accommodation with life, not insensate men seeking an accommodation with death. Cattle die, kinsfolk die, a man himself must die: the only thing that will not die is the good name a good man leaves behind him. But that said (and the High One is speaking of the fame and reputation of each and every man, who need not be a warrior), the best thing we have is life. And why? Because, says Verse 70: “It is the living man who always gets the cow.”
Verse 68 puts it more expansively: “A warm fire and sunshine are fine things for the sons of men, together with good health if that can be managed, and a life without blemish.” And Verse 69: “A man isn’t all that miserable even if his health is poor. One man is happy in his home, another in his family, this one in plenty of money, and that because things turn out well for him.” And most anti-heroical of all, Verse 71: “The lame can ride a horse, a man without hands herd sheep; the deaf man can fight and win the day, and it is better to be blind than burn on the funeral pyre. A corpse is no good to anyone.”
These then are aspects of the Viking Age, the Viking Movement overseas, and the entirely human Viking himself, which have to be presented to the seeker after a credible and composite Viking Image. The London and New York exhibition and its two attendant publications serve admirably to this end. The Vikings and The Viking World are skillfully compiled, up-to-date, and agreeably written presentations of their many-sided subject. Here are the northern peoples at home and abroad, their warring and weaponry, exploration and settlement, the establishment of trade-routes and marts, new towns and encampments; the skills of the jeweler, wood-carver, and sculptor in stone; the craft of the ship-builder treated in considerable detail, the house-builder too, and the successive stages of Scandinavian decorative art: Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes; religion and myth, kingship and social organization.
In short, these books are well-organized summaries of received opinion and answer the questions most likely to be asked of them. Each book is lavishly illustrated, and between them their 420 pages offer 220 pictures in color, 130 in black and white, and about 120 maps and drawings. Many are full page, and there are double-spreads too. Sometimes this weight of illustration, splendid though some of it is, bears down a mite heavily on the written text. Also, the proportion of color plates in books of this kind seems to me to have become too high. Black-and-white is often clearer and more explanatory. But I must not allow the tail of my long-lost penny-plain nonconformist shirt to show in what is probably a minority criticism.
Since both books deal with the same subject, though with differing schemes of reference in mind, and do so in an orderly, progressive, and sensible way, inevitably they have much in common. As has been indicated, each begins at the beginning with the identity and background of the Viking and his emergence on the world scene, and they continue his story to the close of the Viking Age at the end of the eleventh century. The main difference between them is the obvious one that The Vikings has been produced by members of the British Museum staff to serve as a catalogue to “The Vikings” exhibition, as an appetizing and informative preview of it, and thereafter as an illustrated reminder of fine things seen and enjoyed; whereas The Viking World exists independently as a reliable and handsome introduction in the modern manner to the subject at large. Its authors have therefore enjoyed a wider verge and freedom, most apparent of all in its treatment of ships, shipwrights, and seamen, where the extra elbowroom allows a stronger pull. It is therefore the more attractive volume for the general reader, even as The Vikings is the right book in the right place for its announced purpose.
And now to the riches of the exhibition itself. There are 543 listed objects on display, together with some very fine wooden replicas of a Gokstad faering (small rowboat), a sledge and wagon from Oseberg, one of the Urnes panels, and various lesser pieces. By a noble stroke of showmanship the exhibition in London was allowed to begin outside the museum, in the great forecourt, where a full-size longship in replica, Odin’s Raven, which last year sailed from Norway to the Isle of Man to mark the thousandth anniversary of the Tynwald there, “rode on a rope” in the heart of Bloomsbury. This was no studio-piece, but a true sea-goer, and with a little good fortune she could be viewed from below, alongside, and slantingly from above. None in his haste to reach indoors should hurry past this shapely Nordic beauty.
Once up the stairs one almost immediately faced, and could enter, the reconstructed Hedeby house, roomy and comfortable looking, with a richly furnished annex illustrative of house-keeping and home-crafts. This display nicely balanced the longship outside. For it is a main purpose of the exhibition to show the Viking in the round. There are swords and spears in abundance, always deadly, often beautiful; there are pots and bowls and the less fervid ironmongery of the cook. Spindle and gaming-board, beds, combs, and axe-blanks, the tools of the smith, and the instruments of a lady’s toilet—the Viking woman gets the good showing throughout that her position of respect and regard in northern society and law entitled her to. Finery abounds, necklaces, arm-rings, pendants, silver pins, amulets, some exquisite brooches. There are covetable piles of loot and moving witness from the graves—here again with particular reference to women. Three shrines from Ireland are a notable bonus.
All in all, most things are here that the most ambitious could hope for, including scores of famous pieces familiar but not fully known through illustration. Some of these, though one had read their measurements, look startlingly small. Such are the phallic statue of Frey from Rällinge, and the sheet-gold plaques with the figures of Frey and Gerd embracing found at Helgö. Various of the small or smallish personal ornaments in precious metal are among the most engaging pieces on show.
“The Vikings” exhibition has been sponsored by Times Newspapers Ltd. in association with Scandinavian Airways, with the aid of a grant from the Cultural Fund of the Nordic Council. They can review the results of their generosity with satisfaction. All the great repositories and collections have been generous with their treasures. In his preface to the catalogue the director of the British Museum, the archaeologist and historian of Viking Art, Dr. David M. Wilson, considers it unlikely that such an exhibition will ever be mounted again, and I would myself judge it unlikely that we shall see in our lifetimes a second display so balanced, so representative, and so abundant. There will be those for whom the Viking image here delineated will be less romantically, or morbidly, striking than the atribilious visage of Ragnar Hairybreeks, a Starkad, or some sanguinary heroine of the Volsungs; but it is the true one for the student, the scholar, and all who prefer the whole to the part—and the partial. It is an exhibition not to be missed.
October 9, 1980